Elizabeth Poems
by Janice McFarlane

At Paston Manor, with Mother


The rasp of the key’s turn in the door
tells me you’re here again.
Another gasp. It locks us in
together. You are so thin,
mother, yet you loom up.

This is my room and it is not. It is yours
and you want me out of it, out and
off to some ‘most worthy’ man, a
man with military arms and alms,
money enough for everything.

You do not think of his warm arms for
me. I squint at your sharp dark
against the light. You pull up a
joint stool and you sit. My
hands are in my lap.

Your hands lie flat but your stick’s
ghost tip-taps, quiet, on the floor.
Will you strike me like you used to?
My head, my neck, my cage of ribs?
Your hands stay in your lap.

If you start to beat me like you did,
I’ll still not shield myself. Instead,
I’ll stare at the small smudge on
the plastered wall behind you.
It’s still there and still can be

The little things I used to see: a bud,
a piece of intricate embroidery, a
tear that might be shed for me.
You look at me and I look at you.
Your eyes are cockle grey,

mine are more blue. I am reflected
back to myself as you are to you.
What is it that you want now?
What should I do? This is my
liberty, where I have none.

The gentlemen lined up for me are
gone. I’ll try their names again:
‘Stephen Scrope’ had sibilance
but the sound was sick. ‘Sir William
Oldhall’ was just a dusty chamber.

Then John clop ‘Clopton’ who had to
hoof on away. No, I said. No and
no and no. And still in my room
which is your room I am free. You
sit on quietly and contemplate me.

I gaze at you, my mother. You are
the more alone and yet you want me
gone. This is it then: what is evidently
true. You want for me the common
good – for which I must thank you.

 

St Bride’s is where my father died


London, 1444, They ask if I was there.
Not just at the house, but his bedside.

I do, and do not remember. They say
That I was there, or mother does, for

she was his helpmeet always. And I
was in her care too. But it is

what my father said they want me to
recall, the words he spoke just before

he died: if what had not been written
out in law was intended for the eldest

son, John, or if my other brothers were
heirs to lands, as mother says is true –

that is what they want made sure. I look
back, but it is not this ‘case’ to which my

mind turns. I was twelve the day my father
died. He was the first man in my life and I


stroked his brow and held his hand. I cried.

It is my father I remember.

 

Widowhood, 1461


In my small mirror’s glass a
strange and searching face
peers hauntingly at me.

When I was still unmarried
my skin was vellum smooth,
my eyes were clear and vivid,

Speedwell blue. There were
dark stains beneath them,
marks of fear, the violation

of my peace, but they were
scars of battles won. I wore
this tiredness with pride.

All those men put forward.
Then, when I finally said yes
to Robert Poynings, it was

Not just the defined direction
in his name I liked, it was that
we were the same, drawn to do

What others said was foolish or
was wrong. He’d served Jack
Cade. He spent too much. With

Robert, my eyes and brow grew
fine long lines, engraved by talk
and then by laughter. It was not

Persistent debt that imprinted
them (everybody juggles lands
and livestock and lacks cash),

It was the lovely carve of life.
We did not manage three whole
years together. I recall how

I’d stand high on his estates in
Sussex and in Kent. I saw the
greens of other worlds where

new things grew, far away from
Paston’s fields and reedy skies.
But Robert fought in Hertfordshire

for Warwick. Now Robert’s dead.
Our boy is barely three months old.
This mirror face is all I have instead.

 

For My Nephew, 1467.


And so, John, here
I am in Southwark.

Perhaps I am not even
‘Widow Poynings’. I feel
sometimes outwidowed by
the widowhood of mother.

Now a man called Robert
Fiennes wants, or has, all
my own Robert’s lands
both in Sussex and in Kent.

So Robert is out-Roberted.
Well, the king’s the thing.
Dear nephew, do petition
him. Remind him of my

Young son, Edward. Then
let King Edward – who also
chose as his wife a woman
named Elizabeth – think on

Me, this Elizabeth, and her boy,
the child who is an Edward
too. John, you have my trust.
Meanwhile, I have my home

in this bustling place with all its
walls and yards. I like city life.
Change is always in the air.
God will provide, and does.

Patience outweighs
present care.